Did Alibaba retaliate by firing woman who spoke out about workplace sexual misconduct?

Society & Culture

Is Alibaba trying to solve the problem of sexual harassment or just “solving” the problem of employees who speak up?

The logo of Alibaba Group is seen at its office in Beijing, China January 5, 2021. Reuters/Thomas Peter

In news that once again raises troubling questions about the culture of sexual misconduct and retaliatory action in the country’s technology industry, Chinese ecommerce behemoth Alibaba has fired a female employee who accused her former male supervisor of sexual assault and called out the company for mishandling her complaint earlier this year.

In a recent interview with Dahe Daily, a Chinese newspaper based in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, the woman, identified in public only by her surname Zhou, revealed that she was sent a dismissal notice on November 25, nearly four months after Alibaba admitted to botching its initial response to her allegation and promised to adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards sexual misconduct in the workplace. 

According to a copy (in Chinese) of what Zhou said was her dismissal letter, she was accused of “spreading false information” about her assault and Alibaba’s handling of the case through fliers she circulated among co-workers, protests she staged in the cafeteria, and messages she posted on the company’s internal staff platform. The notice, signed off by Zhejiang Tmall Technology, an Alibaba affiliate based in Hangzhou, said that Zhou’s behavior had violated Alibaba’s internal code of conduct and “triggered strong social concern” that negatively impacted its reputation.

Alibaba noted in the letter that it wished to “properly handle the matter from the very beginning” and “maintain communication” with Zhou in the past few months, but she repeatedly rejected its offers to pay her legal and counseling costs. The company also said that it attempted to negotiate Zhou’s departure in November, but they failed to reach an agreement due to Zhou’s “lack of willingness to engage in the talk.”

Zhou, however, told Dahe Daily that she was in regular contact with co-workers from her department and provided screenshots of her conversations with Alibaba employees, which showed her asking multiple times for an extended leave of absence deal with mental health issues caused by the assault. 

“I have not made any mistakes at work and the company has no right to fire me. As a leading internet firm, Alibaba is shockingly terrible at complying with China’s labor laws,” Zhou said. “It never gave me the care and help that I deserved as a victim. But at the same time, it prides itself on creating various organizations to protect women’s and its female employees’ rights. Does it really care about women and is it just a public stunt? There’s much to think about here.”

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Zhou’s termination was the latest development in a months-long scandal that garnered international headlines and ignited intense debate in Chinese society about work culture — and the excessive drinking and sexual harassment that is often part of it — at Chinese companies. 

The controversy started in early August when Zhou accused her then-boss, Wáng Chéngwén 王成文, of assaulting and raping her during a business trip in July after an alcohol-fueled dinner with clients. In a 8,000-word account of her experience first posted on Alibaba’s internal discussion board, Zhou wrote that she had reported the incident to higher-ups in her department, only to be ignored and told that she was “unfit” for her job.

Hours after Zhou’s story made its way to the wider internet, her allegations went viral and ignited an uproar, with critics blasting Alibaba for failing to properly handle employee complaints of sexual assault and fostering a “toxic company culture” where women feel obliged to drink on the job and appear at business gatherings as eye candy.

In response, the tech conglomerate fired Wang and accepted the resignations of two senior executives, while pledging to take steps to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace. In an internal memo (in Chinese), the company’s Chief Executive Officer Daniel Zhang (Zhāng Yǒng 张勇) acknowledged that the scandal was a “humiliation for everyone at Alibaba” and “a reflection of problems” with Alibaba’s workplace culture. 

However, instead of introducing concrete policies to improve working conditions for its female employees, Alibaba appeared to be more interested in enforcing its code of secrecy and ramping up its surveillance on employees: Less than a month after Zhou’s claims went public, Alibaba fired 10 employees for leaking Zhou’s post to the social media after removing watermarks that bore their IDs. 

In September, Alibaba’s indifference to Zhou’s feelings was on display again when a court in Jinan, Shandong Province, dropped Zhou’s case against Wang, saying that although investigators confirmed Wang’s engagement in “forcible indecency,” his actions didn’t rise to the level of a crime because they didn’t find evidence of rape. Quickly after the verdict was announced, Alibaba wrote on social media that it “believes in justice and kindness,” a message that was criticized by many as insensitive towards Zhou and likely to make people think that Wang was the real victim. 

The apathy then escalated into retaliation. In late November, Lǐ Yǒnghé 李永和, former president of the retail unit where Zhou worked, who resigned after the scandal blew up, filed a defamation suit against Zhou, claiming that he had, in fact, reacted promptly to her complaints. In response, Zhou requested a suspension of court proceedings.

On Weibo, where the news of Zhou’s firing has unleashed a string of trending hashtags, with the most prominent one racking up over 680 million views, public opinion was split over Zhou’s case. While some observers applauded Alibaba’s decision, saying that they believe Zhou lied about her experience, others argued that ending her employment was an act of retaliation on Alibaba’s part, and that it was further proof of the company’s systematically prejudiced treatment of female employees and its apathetic stance on sexual misconduct in the workplace. “It looks like they have no interest in solving the problem so they just ‘solved’ the person who brought the problem to light,” a Weibo user commented (in Chinese).